By Alex Baumhardt
A Lamb Weston plant in Hermiston allowed hundreds of tons of excess nitrogen to be spread on two farms, potentially adding pollution to an already critically contaminated aquifer, according to a penalty issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
On Tuesday, the agency fined the Idaho-based potato products manufacturer $127,800 for 90 violations of its wastewater discharge permit at its French fry factory in northeast Oregon. The violations occurred between 2015 and 2021, and resulted in more than 220 tons of unpermitted nitrogen being released. The company has 20 days to respond to DEQ.
Lamb Weston did not respond to requests from the Oregon Capital Chronicle for comment by Tuesday afternoon.
DEQ has fined Lamb Weston’s Hermiston plant before but this is the biggest fine against it at any one time. It follows a fine of $2.1 against the nearby Port of Morrow for over applying nitrogen-rich wastewater and polluting groundwater.
The wastewater discharge permit allows the plant to release some of its nitrogen-rich wastewater onto farmland in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area. The basin has been in critical condition since at least the early 1990s due to contamination from nitrogen and nitrates, largely from irrigation from farms that leads to nitrogen in fertilizer contaminating the groundwater. Manure from industrial farms have also contaminated the groundwater as has wastewater released by area food processors and the Port of Morrow. Nitrates have ended up in private domestic wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties at unsafe levels.
Lamb Weston uses water to wash and process potato products, and that water, mixed with nitrogen from the fertilizer, is applied to crops in the field to enrich the soil.
But when too much nitrogen is applied to the land, crops don’t absorb it and it seeps into the soil, becoming nitrates. Nitrate is very difficult to remove because it binds with water.
It is unsafe to drink water high in nitrates over long periods, according to the Oregon Health Authority, the National Institutes for Health and the World Health Organization. Risks include miscarriage, thyroid disorders and some forms of cancer.
A campaign to test 500 taps from well users in Morrow County this year found that 200 tested above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 parts per million. Nearly 50 more tested above the state’s preferred limit of 7 parts per million. There are an estimated 4,500 domestic wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties supplying water to 12,000 people, including many who are Latino and low income, according to the state health authority and environmental quality department.
For the complete story, see the Oregon Capital Chronicle.